June 7, 2006 – With Americans still reeling from the news that the government has access to their communications, and with Congress up in arms over an FBI raid on Representative William Jeffersonâ€™s office, Portland, Oregonâ€™s city government has announced that it, too, may be the target of federal surveillance.
Portland Mayor Tom Potter has made public an attempt by the FBI to make contact with a source inside City Hall. In an open letter to the community, Potter announced that on May 11, an employee of the city attorneyâ€™s office was approached by FBI agent Jeffrey Pritchett.
Mayor Potter relayed the anonymous employeeâ€™s report to The NewStandard; the FBI confirmed the details.
Pritchett, who was loosely acquainted with the city worker, explained to her that public corruption and white-collar crime are among the Bureauâ€™s top national priorities. He then asked the employee, who has chosen to remain anonymous, if she knew any City Council members and if she would be willing to pass along information to the FBI about people who work for the city of Portland.
"Iâ€™m glad that I found out, and that this person in our employment decided not to become an informant for the FBI, I thought it was important that the citizens know about this too," said Potter.
The FBI did not deny that a conversation took place between Agent Pritchett and a city employee. Daniel Nielsen, acting special agent in charge of the Portland division of the FBI, told The NewStandard that he would not categorize the interaction as a solicitation of a possible informant.
The FBI did not deny that a conversation took place between Agent Pritchett and a city employee.
"The reason why I resist that description is because we talk to people all the time," Nielsen said, "so the question becomes, if anyone talks to us about anything, does that necessarily make them an informant? There has to be a specific relationship in order for that title to take place and that certainly was not the nature of this discussion."
Nielsen went on to deny that the FBI is currently investigating Portlandâ€™s city government.
Portlandâ€™s relationship with the FBI has been strained during Potterâ€™s term in office. The city has not forgotten that it was federal officers, and not the local police, who wrongfully arrested and detained a local resident, lawyer Brandon Mayfield, in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
Last spring, the mayor and the city council voted to remove Portland police officers from the federally-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). There was significant public opposition to Portlandâ€™s participation in the Task Force, and Potter said he did not feel he was given enough information to adequately oversee the officers.
"I didnâ€™t know of anything that they were doing that was wrong," the mayor explained to TNS, "I just didnâ€™t know what they were doing."
City Commissioner Randy Leonard said he sees a direct connection between the FBI approaching a city employee and the council pulling officers from the JTTF. "I remember some of the snarky comments the FBI made both to me personally and to the mayor personally. I think they were seething mad at us," he said. "I donâ€™t see how one can simply say [the alleged infiltration attempt] is what the FBI was doing as a normal course of events."
â€œI donâ€™t see how one can simply say [the alleged infiltration attempt] is what the FBI was doing as a normal course of events.â€
ACLU of Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque says the recent incident in Portland is part of a disturbing trend. "Particularly since 9/11, when former Attorney General Ashcroft greatly weakened the guidelines for investigations in all kinds of cases, the FBI now has much greater latitude to use informants to insert themselves into situations where they previously had not been able to go in terms of infiltrating groups that are law-abiding, but engaged in political activity," Fidanque said.
Fidanque explained that under the guidelines put in place during President Fordâ€™s administration, FBI agents were strictly required to have a suspicion of criminal conduct prior to recruiting informants or beginning any kind of investigation. Ashcroftâ€™s changes allow the FBI to appear in an official capacity anywhere that members of the public have free access, regardless of whether they have suspicion of any wrongdoing.
At Potterâ€™s request, the Department of Justiceâ€™s Office of Professional Responsibility will conduct an internal investigation to determine whether or not Agent Pritchett acted appropriately when he approached the city employee.
Special Agent Nielsen says he welcomes the evaluation, but he maintains that there has been no violation of policy here.
Potter said he is awaiting the results of the Justice Departmentâ€™s evaluation. "But I think the important thing for me was letting the public know what was going on here in Portland," he said.